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Creating a Career Development System

Handling Promotion
Coaching / Training / Mentorship
Career Path

19 May, 2021

Cristian Cătană
Cristian Cătană

Head of Software Engineering at STRATEC Biomedical

Cristian Cătană, Head of Software Engineering at STRATEC Biomedical, shares how he helped his reports grow by creating a comprehensive career development system.

Problem

I work for a multinational company headquartered in Germany that develops and manufactures analyzers for in vitro diagnostics . The local branch in Cluj, Romania -- where I work -- was started a while back, and we grew from 4 engineers to more than 150. The startup atmosphere that we had was inspiring in many ways, but without a clear career path and formalized ladder, it was difficult to support the professional growth of the engineers joining our company. Our vision for the development of the local branch -- with its focus on innovation and technical excellence -- was not feasible unless we could create a career development system that would embody a culture of innovation and creativity. To do that, we were given significant autonomy from headquarters to organize our efforts as we saw fit.

Actions taken

For starters, we initiated a series of conversations at the leadership level. Besides software engineers, we also have hardware, firmware, and mechanical engineers at our branch and we made sure to include all of them. To ensure alignment from the beginning, we created a steering team with leaders representing each of the departments to discuss our needs and how we could develop a system matching them.

We studied a dozen examples of career paths and performance management systems to learn about possible solutions. I also had inspiring conversations with people who could help, including some of the mentors on Plato, whose valuable advice was highly beneficial. The whole process stretched out to one year and during that time, we were continuously receiving feedback from various people across the entire organization.

We ended up creating a well-defined career path with a dual career track that would allow people who wanted to stay on a technical track to become specialists and still climb up the ladder. We split competencies into two large areas: general skills that should be acquired by anyone in the company (communication, delivery, product knowledge, etc.) and specific skills different for each department.

We created smaller, autonomous teams with their own structure and titles that corresponded to the needs we identified. However, to ensure alignment and objectiveness, leaders of each department would have to provide arguments for their promotion proposals. Though we had around 80 engineers in the software engineering department, criteria for each team member were discussed with great care. Named the Calibration sessions, those team-wide meetings ensured fairness since promotions were never decided by one person alone.

Also, we started flat, as a non-hierarchical team, where everyone was an engineer, which was also the only title shared by everyone. Besides offering people to choose between a manager and IC specialist, we also formalized the career ladder to encourage people to improve and grow. As stated above, all promotions were collective decisions brought after an extensive discussion referring to well-defined criteria.

To support the system we put in place, we also introduced frequent one-on-ones, defined precise OKRs, and did regular 360 feedback. It was not just the career path or ladders but all supporting activities that allowed us to help our engineers grow. It took us a year to make all bits and pieces of the system functional, but things are now working quite seamlessly. The growth of our engineers has been incredible since we launched our career program. Everyone knows what they need to do to grow in a certain direction, and they appreciate the clarity and structure of the system.

Lessons learned

  • Most engineers aspire to grow and are willing to invest their time into that. However, they need the help of their leaders. Initially, we were there for our engineers to support them or offer training, but the process was not structured and not binding in any sense. Only with a comprehensive system in place could we provide them with the support they needed.
  • It is important to involve as many people in the process of developing the plan that we referred to as the Map. After all, the whole process should benefit every single person at our branch. For people to embrace it, it should come as something that was not imposed on them. We collected a lot of valuable feedback throughout the process and had a lot of worthy conversations. We also ran surveys and had public presentations to showcase the most intermediate results.
  • It is important to find a mentor who can help with the challenges you are going through. I had many fruitful conversations with mentors who underwent something similar before, and they helped me understand what to focus on, be concerned with, or pay attention to. I had to connect and learn from people who did this for a large team as I realized that the challenges would be different compared to doing this when the company is just starting out. Without their experience and insights, I doubt our efforts would be that successful.

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